“Words paint pictures and pictures tell a story”: working with an illustrator
As soon as I’d finished The Salt-Stained Book I knew I wanted Claudia Myatt to illustrate it. We hadn’t ever met but we had a couple of friends in common and I admired the Go Sailing! Series that she was (and still is) producing for the RYA (Royal Yachting Association). These are books of instruction and advice for children and could so easily be dull or patronising. From Claudia’s paintbrush they are lively, funny, colourful and at least equally useful to adults.
Claudia’s drawings must be accurate. It is simply no good having a dinghy beating into a following wind or an ensign streaming out in the wrong direction. (Does anyone else remember the glorious Battle of Bunkum Bay by John Ryan?) Not only because the RYA run a whole series of courses and qualifications from child levels upwards, but also because she draws for a range of yachting magazines where the accumulated knowledge and experience of the readership is frankly terrifying. They know their bawleys from their barges all right – and their Mirrors from their Miracles.
We nearly had a disaster with the front cover of A Ravelled Flag, the second volume in my Strong Winds trilogy. It features a simple signal hoist which the youngsters from The Salt-Stained Book constructed to send a message to Donny’s Great Aunt Ellen. They’ve made a mistake with the first flag using the Chinese national flag to indicate the departure point of the boat rather than the nationality of the owner (Australian). But that’s no big deal and comes in handy for the plot as well as looking good. The second flag is Great Aunt Ellen’s house flag and is making a discreet reference to Arthur Ransome’s Missee Lee. The red-and-white quartered flag is U in the International code of the sea and has the additional meaning “You are standing into danger.
Indeed we were. Claudia’s first cover was striking, heraldic even but, I thought, possibly too static. Then we went sailing together though Harwich harbour and out to sea on a really blowy day. As we lurked in the lee of a breakwater for me to take in a reef, we agreed amicably that the quality we wanted above all was movement – which Claudia duly provided, once she’d unfrozen her fingers and dashed the sea-spray from her eyes. But somehow, back in her studio, she transposed the red-and white quarters. Shock horror gasp. No grammatical confusion of it and it’s, affect and effect, there and their, would have been more socially ruinous to the book’s life chances with the sailing community. I didn’t spot it either. Fortunately, with only days to go before all the files were due at the printer, a reader in New Zealand received some pre-publicity and was duly appalled by the solecism. How we blessed him! (Another expert messaged us to check whether we were fully aware of the symbolic significance on the number of toes on a Chinese dragon but by then we were past caring.)
Working together, like sailing together, is a great way to build a friendship. I suppose it could also spoil one but that hasn’t happened in our case. I’ve discovered that I’m unbearably finicky about a boat’s lines (ie the shape of her hull). I rationalise this by explaining that I’m the daughter of a yacht agent and the niece of a naval architect and therefore spent years of my childhood either out on the river listening to their uninhibited criticisms or hanging around boatyards while they discussed the details of timbers, frames and bulkheads. I thought it was so boring – and I’ve never been able draw so much as a beach-ball myself – but if I think that poor dear Claudia hasn’t got a sheer quite right or has allowed the slightest curve to creep into a transom which ought to be straight, there I am, moaning. I couldn’t stand me if I was her.
Not that it’s happened more than about once per book. 99.999999% of the time I’m ecstatic when I open an attachment and see what she’s produced. Claudia “thinks with her pencil”. She’s been living in Wales and I’m in Essex so we haven’t sat at a table together so very often. When we have, and she’s been sketching as we talk, I find it completely fascinating to watch her getting the viewpoint right. It’s all a matter of perspective, she explains, you have to decide the angle from which you are looking. Like writing. We agreed at the outset that she wasn’t illustrating the stories so much as offering a visual comment at the end of each chapter. “Words paint a picture and pictures tell a story,” is another of her gnomic utterances. I’m therefore allowed to suggest subjects that I think might make an end-piece and she is invaluable in earlier drafts in telling me what does and doesn’t work in the narrative. “He just wouldn’t do that, Julia. It’s completely counter-intuitive, for a sailor.”
In the naïve days when I hoped that The Salt-Stained Book would be taken by a ‘proper’ publisher, I sometimes found myself rehearsing the little speech that I was going to make to persuade them to commission Claudia. But I don’t think it would ever have been quite the same relationship. Independent publishing, as Authors Electric members know, requires the writer to take on a whole raft of new responsibilities. It’s exhilarating: it can also be daunting. When I pushed the ‘send’ button to upload the SSB onto the printer’s system, it was about as scary and as thrilling as when I cast off my mooring to take Peter Duck out for the first time single-handed. Except in this case I wasn’t on my own. From the front cover to the final page there was another set of skills on board.
indie ebook review of The Salt Stained Book
indie ebook review of A Ravelled Flag
Find out more about Julia Jones